30 January 2013, 14:27

WWII Arctic Convoys to be finally awarded

WWII Arctic Convoys to be finally awarded
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The worst journey in the world: that's what Winston Churchill called the Arctic Convoy mission undertaken by British RAF pilots to Murmansk in 1941. A film tracking that journey is part of the campaign to recognise the soldiers' war efforts. Voice of Russia correspondent Rebecca Burns went along to a special screening of the film for the campaign's veterans at the Russian cultural centre in London.

I’m delighted to be able to support this campaign from the beginning, because I think we all recognize that it was hugely important that we recognized the bravery and the commitment that those brave men that took part in the Arctic convoys had, not only to our country, but for the future of all humanity in the mankind.

British Member of Parliament Andrew Griffiths addresses the audience of WWII veterans who had made what Winston Churchill called “the worst journey in the world” – the Arctic convoy mission. In 1941 pilots took to the seas in response to cry to help from the under-resourced Russia. They sent the convoy of 3,000 hurricane fighter planes to the Port of Murmansk on the North-West tip of the then-Soviet Union where they took charge of training and defense alongside Russian troops in hostile region. Vivienne Pottersman and Roy Perkins came across the story and decided to write, produce and direct a film about the expedition. They explained why they felt the need to tell the veteran’s story.

Vivienne Pottersman: Our parents’ and grandparents’ generation do appreciate the importance of British-Russian alliance in the war. But it’s slowly being forgotten.

Roy Perkins: A reporter told me recently that there was a survey done among American undergraduates who believe that Russia was the official enemy of the U.S. in WWII. The degree of ignorance amongst young generations in America and Britain is really very worrying. It’s actually the reason why we started this film. We’ve tried very much to reflect an enormous cost that Russia bore in WWII. Most people have no idea that Russia lost over 26 million people. There’ve been all sorts of reasons for us to be wanting to stay with the story, one is that it reflects our own personal gratitude to Russia, because without Russia the WWII wouldn’t have been won and there’re quite a lot of people who wouldn’t be here now.

Between 1941 and 1945 British warships escorted 78 convoys of aircraft, guns, food and other vital supplies through the Barren Sea to the Russian ports of Murmansk and Archangelsk. Until recently the U.K. Parliament haven’t created a medal in recognition of the campaign. But last December that changed. Andrew Griffiths MP explains:

Recently, just a few weeks ago, the Prime Minister David Cameron announced that we were going to award the Arctic Convoy medal to veterans. We’re just waiting – in the next few days we’ll hear the criteria for that. I think many of us not only want to see medal awarded to those servicemen that are still alive, but I think many of us want to see it awarded posthumously, because there’re many families who lost sons, brothers, fathers, who’d like to see that recognition as well.

For some the timing of the announcement was particularly poignant.

I’m Jill Darrel and I’m the daughter of Owen Darrel who was on the convoys going to Murmansk. He went on HMS Bulldog in 1942. He died very recently, just after Christmas. And my mother asked me if I could find out a little bit more about how he would receive his medal.

For veterans of the mission, like Ernie Davis, the announcement held huge significance.

I’m glad it’s been recognized that those men whom we lost will never come back.

But the campaign isn’t over. The Russian government wants to award Ushakov medal for bravery to the Arctic convoy veterans. But the Foreign Office is refusing to allow the medal to be given. Amongst other reasons, the act has to have taken place in the last five years. Veterans Ernie Davis and Jimmy Pitz are acutely aware of time passing as governments delay their decisions.

Ernie Davis: We’re hoping that the government agrees on both medals.

Jimmy Pitz: There’re only a few of us left. We haven’t got many more years.

Andrew Griffiths MP said the government could do more.

I think it’s regrettable that men who made such a sacrifice feel that they’re not being properly recognized for that commitment. I’d like to see both the Arctic convoy medal being awarded and for this dwindling band of men to be able to accept the Ushakov medal as well. I just can’t in my heart understand why that wouldn’t be applicable.

But despite the campaign to accept the award of the Ushakov medal, some think enough has been done:

I was in the Air Force for 40 years and the last 3.5 years of my time I was in Moscow as the Defense Attaché in the British Embassy. Recognition finally by a government who have been banned by the rules and have said eventually, “To hell with the rules! Let’s have a new medal! Let’s make it available to the veterans of Arctic convoys!” It’s quite clear that what happened in North Russia in 1941 was just a small episode in a huge conflict. But as a symbol of how recognition passes backwards and forwards between the nations, I think it’s a very-very significant symbol and one that frankly can be uploaded.

Some 3,000 servicemen who had been offered Ushakov medals by the Russian government – regardless of whether the veterans get their medals from Russia – in the next few days they will find out more about the British medal they’ve finally been awarded. In the meantime, in the wake of the Prime Minister’s announcement spirits are high!

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